A music therapist’s quest for beauty in one of the world’s most notorious red light districts
Morning in The City of Pain*—the sharp stench of megacity pollution burns in the back of your throat, blending and blurring in each inhalation with the scent of spices, steaming chai, and the sour sweat of more than 10 million souls. It’s still early, but already the narrow, maze-like streets are full of sound and movement, a maelstrom of honking taxis and street dogs and swirling saris. The neighborhood shakes off a collective hangover and begins another day.
This is one of the largest and most notorious red light districts in Asia. An estimated 10,000 women and girls, daughters and grandmothers live here, trapped in lives of sexual exploitation. Many were forced into this life out of desperation and poverty. Sex work feeds starving kids, and so long as the money comes in, their families learn not to ask too many questions. Other women are victims of human trafficking—sold to the brothels by parents or neighbors, tricked into the trade by the promise of a job and a future in the big city, or betrayed by the sweet lies of a boy pledging love and marriage. Once they’re in, pimps, madams, and thugs levy a tax of violence, rape, threats, and debt to keep the girls in bondage.
Last night, as every night, thousands of men poured into the neighborhood, drunk, strung out, propelled by a dark hunger. The women form lines and crowd the doorways and call out to their customers. Weary smiles hide the sadness, the pain.
This morning, as every morning, an intrepid Scot named Mary Dodgson steps out of her nearby flat, violin case in hand, and faces the darkness with music.
A classically trained violinist, Dodgson** spent years teaching music and performing with London orchestras. Yet, as a committed Christian with a heart for the broken, she felt drawn to use her gifts to heal the hurting. In 2013, she packed up her violin and moved to India. Today, Dodgson provides music therapy programs for women and children trafficked into the sex trade, disabled children living in the red light district, and local orphans.
But before she moved across the globe, before the days of death and beauty, before the stories of pain poured out of The City and into her heart in an endless, weighty rush, before she learned to look for hope in the tiniest of details, Mary Dodgson was just a little girl in Glasgow, stirred by the sound of her grandmother’s violin.
“Music was always part of my family heritage,” Dodgson said. “My gran was a singer. She loved music, [and she] and my grandfather had a really lovely relationship.”
When Dodgson’s grandmother declared that she wanted to learn to play the violin, her husband tackled the challenge as a romantic quest. Determined to find an instrument worthy of his wife, he set out from Scotland, crossed the English Channel, and drove clear across Europe to buy an Italian violin. It was fake Stradivarius—factory-made, but beautiful, and capable of making marvelous music. Dodgson’s parents gave her the family relic as soon as she was tall enough to wield it, and a violinist was born.
“I was good,” Dodgson said. “There were some very difficult things [in my life] growing up, and for me it was a way of expressing my feelings. I guess that’s where my healing journey started.”
In the years to come, Dodgson thrived as a musician. She studied music performance at the Royal College of Music in London, then taught and played professionally with London orchestras. Being a violinist became her identity, and she was living the dream as a professional musician in one of the great cosmopolitan cities of the world.
But something was missing.
Though Dodgson had grown up in the Scottish ecumenical church, she says it wasn’t until she was living in London as a young adult that her faith made a tangible impact on her life and identity.
“That’s when I encountered the Holy Spirit as part of the Trinity,” she said. “I began to explore the character of the Father. I’d been missing out!”
Stoked to action by her faith, Dodgson started volunteering with an HIV-focused charity, mentoring a young girl who had lost her mother. When Dodgson joined the non-profit on a two-week volunteer trip to India, she felt something in her heart shift.
“My first exposure [to] a developing world country was incredibly challenging, but in a lovely way,” Dodgson said. “[I decided,] I’m going to take what I’ve seen—the commitment to and passion of people for Jesus in this place—back to London… and live missionally.”
But when she returned to London, music was still her identity.
“One day I felt the Lord say: ‘Lay it down.”
So she did. For six years, Dodgson left professional music completely—no teaching, no orchestras, no violin—and instead began working full time for the charity. She describes the process as “a grieving,” the breaking down of her old, self-focused identity, and the rebuilding of a new self, one aimed at truly seeing and loving people.
“My sabbatical turned into six years,” Dodgson laughed. “At the end of that time I felt I was becoming a plug for the [HIV] ministry. I needed to leave for them to grow and move on. … And out of the blue came music therapy.”
Things were changing in Dodgson’s heart as well.
“I did a ‘blue sky dream,’” she said. “[I asked myself,] if could do anything, anywhere, with money not an issue, what would I do? And out of the blue came music therapy.”
One after another, doors opened. She earned a master’s degree and cut her teeth as a music therapist in London, working with children and adults with learning disabilities and mental health issues. Harnessing the power of music, she was able to bring healing to hurting and broken people.
Dodgson’s story could have ended there—a story of transformation, the redemption of a lifelong passion turned in service to others, but her journey was only just beginning.
Music as a Healing Agent
It had been 12 years since Dodgson’s first, transformative trip to India, but all that time she had kept up with her contacts and gone on numerous volunteer trips with the HIV non-profit. Year after year, Dodgson felt a growing, mysterious love for the country and its people, particularly for the women trapped in the red light areas. Many struggled with mental health issues, depression, anxiety, and addictions. All had severely traumatic histories. “Could music therapy be effective in that context?” Dodgson asked herself. “Could I live there full time?”
Testing her call, Dodgson returned to The City for a five week stint. She hosted mental health-focused music therapy sessions with a Nepali woman from the red light area, every day, and ran sessions for children of sex workers living in the district.
“[I needed to see] if music therapy was culturally appropriate,” she explained. ”[I needed to know: Is there a need, or is this [really] about my need?”
At the end of those five weeks, Dodgson noticed a clear change it the Nepali woman. The therapy worked.
“Music works cross culturally in the most incredible way,” Dodgson said. “I could see after five weeks that this was something that could bring a different angle of health into a trauma context that just wasn’t happening.”
In 2013, the 35-year-old Dodgson moved to India. For the last six years, she has lived and worked in The City’s red light district, facilitating music therapy groups and walking alongside her neighbors in love.
No two music therapy sessions are alike. Every session has a beginning and an end, but what happens in the middle is always different. Sometimes Dodgson works with individuals, other times with groups. They play drums and tuned instruments, but how they use them depends entirely on the specific needs of the person.
“For instance, if you’re working with a child who is on the autistic spectrum, you might use structured, intensive, interactive models of making music that support that child’s needs,” Dodgson explained. “[But] I would work very different with a group of women who have mental health difficulties or [are] in a trauma context where their need for choice, autonomy, safety, [and] free expression is really important.”
For women who have experienced trauma and spent most of their lives trapped in brothels, Dodgson’s goal is to help facilitate a way for them to express emotion without necessarily putting it into words.
“No two music therapy sessions are alike. Every session has a beginning and an end, but what happens in the middle is always different.”
“It can be improvised,” she said. “In this culture the music is so varied: you’ve got Bollywood, the classical Indian stuff, hip-hop, a bit of Tollywood coming in. So the scope around improvisation is quite fun.”
According to Dodgson, music therapy can support neuropathway regulation, fight or flight response, and sensory needs. It helps participants learn to calm themselves, deal with anxiety and depression, and supports their ability to make choices, develop self-awareness, have confidence, and begin to trust other people.
The life Dodgson has chosen is not an easy one, and immersing oneself in suffering for so long can take its toll. Over six years, her women’s group in the red light area has grown to almost 40 women. Every week, they gather together to share life and struggles and music. Every day, Dodgson spends hours working through others’ intensely traumatic stories. It’s rewarding to see healing happen, to be sure, but a life lived intentionally with and alongside the oppressed can also be an isolating, hope-sucking experience.
“Every day it’s in your face,” Dodgson said. “I walk into the area, and there’s a man drunk in the gutter from the night before, or I go in to see a woman and she has bruises on her face, or I see a group of women pulling customers into the line. There’s so much [here] that is overwhelmingly broken. I rile against it, but sometimes I feel completely powerless.”
Over the years, she has found herself responding in different ways: grief, despair, but especially anger—at the systems, the men, the culture, herself.
“I remember a woman who I knew dying in the street,” she said. “She was my friend. I remember picking maggots out of her foot, loving her through alcoholism. I remember feeling so powerless to change the cycle of all that she went through, all the losses that she held. I remember the harshness of the scarcity of poverty and abandonment from society.”
“She died alone,” she added. “There’s no happy ending to that one. … To sit with those things, to be alongside [these women], to war for peace as it’s all going wrong, that takes a huge amount of work internally, mentally, and emotionally.”
Surrounded by suffering and the ugliness of the world, Dodgson went on a quest for beauty.
Learning to See
Determined to hold fast to hope in the midst of darkness, Dodgson has taken to going on “photo walks.” She roams the streets of The City in search of beauty hidden in the smallest things: flowers growing in a crack in the street, the smile of a stranger.
She was nervous at first, uncomfortable with the idea of toting a camera through her adopted city. It made her feel like a tourist, or a voyeur. She worried about how it would look to others. After all, she came here to be with people, and she didn’t want to portray anything different. Even now, she never takes her camera into the red light area—careful not to put the women at risk or inadvertently shame them.
Eventually though, Dodgson found that taking her camera to other parts of The City gave her a much needed outlet and, more importantly, a new, fuller perspective of India.
“I didn’t want my experience of this place to be just about fighting a red light area,” she said. “I wanted to enjoy the fullness of all that the culture in India is, because if I lose my love for the people then I need to pack my bags. Photography began to bridge that gap.”
India is a case study in sensory overload, a non-stop assault of sounds, sights, and smells. It’s overwhelming and stressful, and it can be all too easy to approach The City as something to simply survive, rather than a place to thrive. But when you slow down and begin to parse out the details from the chaotic whole, when you begin to look closely and really see, India hides breathtaking splashes of life in every corner.
“[With photography,] I can engage in a way that is less overwhelming,” Dodgson explained. “I will never experience the fullness of India. I cannot. It’s huge. The history is so deep. But photography has helped me connect with the people, the culture, the history. [And] that’s been really important.”
The City is a relic of the British Raj, and to walk in the older alleyways is to wind through the rotting wreckage of empire. Paint peels off century-old buildings, their ornate facades crumbling to reveal rough brick beneath. The grime is punctuated by splashes of color, and children’s laughter echoes in the alleys. When she wanders the streets with a camera, Dodgson slows down. She takes in the crackling drama of the neighborhoods, the textures of the marketplaces, and the mysterious geographies of a city, a culture, so layered she can scarcely hope to map it. She still remembers the old man who sold eggs at the entrance of the local market—the impossible softness of his hands, the gentleness with which he handled his wares.
“I wanted to enjoy the fullness of all that the culture in India is, because if I lose my love for the people then I need to pack my bags.”
In her 1974 book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard wrote: “Unless I call my attention to what passes before my eyes, I simply won’t see it.”
Dodgson looks to know, and to love, because love is what propels her forward.
In 2007, India’s Ministry of Women and Child Development estimated that there were 3 million female sex workers in India, nearly 35 percent of whom had entered the trade before age 18. 10,000 women still work the lines in The City’s red light district, exploited, then rejected by society.
But if you slow down and take a closer look, you’ll find hope hidden in the cracks. Somewhere deep in the district, 40 courageous women are making music that rages against the darkness. They’re sharing their stories, healing, finding freedom, creativity, and community.
Dodgson says she is excited about working herself out of a job: “Some of the women in our group have become real leaders. They’re becoming the people who [can be] the hands and feet of Jesus in this place in ways that I can’t be.”
This morning, as every morning, Mary Dodgson will step out of her flat, violin case in hand, and face The City of Pain. She’ll walk alongside her neighbors’ vulnerability, wielding music as a weapon of healing and peace. Later, she’ll put the violin down and step out again, camera in hand, to wander the alleyways and neighborhoods in search of wonder. She’ll talk to strangers and sip sweet milky chai and explore the endless, fascinating stories that hide in the details, just waiting to be discovered. And having snatched the hidden beauty from the city’s depths, she will endure to fight another day.
Behind her, from deep in the red light district, the long soaring song of a violin unfurls itself in the chipped-paint alleyways. The beat of a drum, the hum of a voice join in, and the notes curl past the brothels and bars and gutters. Slowly, slowly, the music grows louder.
*The name of the city has been made anonymous for privacy and security reasons.
**Name changed for privacy and security reasons.
Photos by Mary Dodgson.